In the late 1930’s everyone was concerned about the depression and America was developing a full-scale appreciation of radio as an important cross-cultural communications medium. And one of the darlings of this wholesale consumerist environment was Orson Welles. Yes, years before the young, ambitious – some might say pretentious and Narcissistic – writer, director and actor had even considered production of what would become critics’ most generally admired film of all time, Citizen Kane, the youthful self-inspired Welles was engaging his Mercury theatre with re-imagined political reinterpretations of the Bard’s plays – with Julius Caesar and Macbeth amongst his adaptations. While Welles was establishing himself as a star of the theatre he was also becoming hugely successful in radio. The theatrical element of Welles’ early career is portrayed in the entertaining Hollywood drama Me and Orson Welles (2010).
Welles’ broadcasting success led to him having his very own radio show and after a producing a number of drama series, he decided that he would like to adapt HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. Little did he know that it would, when broadcast, result in mass panic across America. It wasn’t intended to be a hoax but, for a while, a large proportion of his audience genuinely believed that their country had been invaded by Martians.
The Martians Are Coming! tells the story of this radio production, putting it into the context of the time, and explains the impact it had on the American consciousness. It documents Welles’ early career, charts the development and production of this most infamous of broadcasts and, of course, details the repercussions. Indeed it was the aftermath when, perhaps for the first time in his life, Welles was humbled – at least initially – that provides fascinating reading.
Interviews with those involved give real insight into the production process – from Welles’ idea that he wanted to adapt the novel by transplanting the action from the UK to contemporary America but also by using a modern approach to the storytelling to make best use of the radio medium, writer Howard Koch agonising over the script and all the trials, tribulations and tantrums associated with the creative process.
In a multi-media age where the internet and 24 hour news channels are accessible to millions of people worldwide, it seems almost impossible to understand how a simple radio play could have had such a massive impact on a populace. And this is the book’s strength – it is extensively researched and tells the story from multiple viewpoints, including accounts from terrified listeners, the response of the press and the authorities and it gives a real feel for how ordinary people reacted. The book is well illustrated throughout, with annotated extracts from Welles’ script being of particular interest.
An interesting insight into one of the world’s most talked-about broadcasts and one of its most maverick artists, The Martians Are Coming! is highly recommended.